Spanish Colonial architecture in the New World is a synthesis of several influences that span many centuries.
These include the Roman Empire (via original structures, and the re-discovery of the works of Roman architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio in 1511 A.D.), the Islamic Moors of North Africa, and Christian Europe.
Classical, Moorish, and Gothic influences melded in the 1500s, to produce the Spanish art style known as plateresque. In the New World, the term was soon applied to architecture as well.
While subsequent Old World architectural traditions (mannerism, baroque, rococo, and their offshoots) eventually influenced Hispanic New World architecture, the plateresque style retains its place as the architectural signature of the Spanish Colonial Era in the Americas.
The Catholic Church
The institution that most strongly influenced construction in the New World was the Catholic Church. Three orders - the Franciscans, Augustinians and Dominicans - were particularly influential because they were heavily involved with converting New World indigenous peoples to the Spanish lifeway.
The Franciscans were the first order to arrive in the New World at a time when the plateresque style prevailed in Spain. The simplicity found in their building tradition reflects the plateresque style as well as the novice abilities of a native population who were unfamiliar with Spanish construction methods.
The Augustinians and Dominicans arrived later and capitalized on a labor force already trained by the Franciscans. As a result, the buildings associated with the later orders are generally more ornate.
Of the different religious orders, the Franciscans had the greatest impact on the appearance of secular buildings because they overbuilt during the height of Spanish religious expansion in the New World. Unnecessary structures were converted for use as public buildings and many eventually became private homes.
These buildings (as well as homes of more humble origin) maximized use of space by presenting blank walls that abutted busy city streets. Inside, arched walkways lined serene open air patios filled with water features, verdant plantings, and colorful painting and tile work. As such, these buildings exemplified the plateresque fusion of Roman, Moorish and Gothic architectural traditions - a style which continues in popularity to the present day.
While the plateresque style is most obvious at Mission Espiritu Santo, later influences are present as well. For example, the simple stepped altar screen inside the chapel is divided by pillars in the estipite style.
Estipite pillars were popular elements found in the Mexican churrigueresque style (an offshoot of baroque). They included capitols, square and circular blocks, and inverted obelisks. These pillars can be very ornately carved, but those at Mission Espiritu Santo rely primarily on paint for ornamentation, which is to be expected for a remote frontier mission reliant upon local skill.
Other elements from the same period include inverted geometric designs called pinjante (found on the façade of the chapel) as well as opposed spiral designs found on the back door of the mission granary.
As to the Franciscans, their symbols are easily found at Mission Espiritu Santo. The church façade displays the Franciscan Badge - the crossed arms of Jesus and St. Francis.
Five blood drops representing the “Five Wounds of Christ” are also present on the facade. A skull and crossbones located over the north door of the church signify the brevity of life.
The main symbol of the Franciscan order is a white cotton rope, which represents the belt worn by Franciscans. It can be found carved into the chapel façade and it reappears on the pulpit and around the interior of the church just below the vault.